Foodie Fundamentalism: What Graham Crackers Can Teach Us About the Food Movement
The food movement’s holier than thou attitude may seem new, but foodism’s religious roots date back to a 19th century health reform movement.
It is perhaps a fitting irony that today Graham’s name is best known for its association with Graham Crackers—the key ingredient, alongside sugary marshmallows and chocolate, in that beloved campfire treat, a s’more.
Photo By Flickr/Yurilong
Leaving the farmers’ market every Saturday, I am filled with self-satisfaction. Not only have I managed to accomplish some food shopping (a tricky feat for busy people), but I also imagine that I have participated in the political project of “the food movement.” In this fantasy, the First Lady, Michael Pollan, and Mark Bittman regard me with approval. This zeal fades quickly as the fruit flies come to feast on the tomatoes that I never seem to eat fast enough, and as I cave after a long day and dig into an ice-cream bar made with unpronounceable ingredients. Guilt soon sets in. Again, I have failed to live up to the high standards of today’s food reformers, where we eat simply, locally, and organically. All the time.
Of course, not all food reformers are calling for the same thing. As Pollan has pointed out, the food movement is “a big, lumpy tent.” There are hosts of activists: among them the foodies (who enjoy eating’s aesthetic values); the sustainability advocates (who monitor animal welfare and agriculture’s impact on ecosystems); and the health reformers (who raise awareness about obesity and inner-city food deserts). Since their resurgence in the 1970s, these diverse factions have conspired toward a common goal: telling us how to eat better, and making us feel worse when we don’t.
It’s a noble and needed cause, but like any crusade, it can get a little preachy. Writing in The Atlantic last year, B.R. Myers lamented foodism’s faux piety, one where “to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself,” all while assembling special dinner parties with overpriced ingredients, meant to model morality for the masses. I tend to agree; while Myers’ beef is with the foodies in particular, there is something “holier than thou” about the entire food movement. But on one historical point, Myers gets it wrong. He posits that foodism’s self-righteousness is a newfound affectation. “For the first time in the history of their community,” he writes, gourmets are left “feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street.” In fact, the American food movement has a long, sanctimonious history—and one with surprisingly religious roots.
Reverend Sylvester Graham and the Food Movement
If we trace the lineage of the food movement, the grandfather of health food would be the Reverend Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister from Connecticut, whose “Graham Diet” was first codified in his Treatise on Bread and Bread-making in 1837. Graham was among the 19th century reformers who hoped for a nation devoid of all sorts of immorality, from slavery and alcohol to lesser vices like white flour and sugar. Abolitionists and health reformers alike found the key to national reform in religion. The personal decision to follow Jesus Christ—and give up one’s vices—was the starting point to persuade fellow citizens to join the cause.
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